Nigel Kendall assesses for the Olympic Review the International Olympic Committee’s success in the exploitation of social media to engage with people around the world through a variety of different platforms.
The birth of social media through the internet in the first decade of the 21st century has been nothing less than extraordinary. Blogging, bulletin boards and peer review sites have exploded in popularity. The most celebrated of these new tools are Facebook and Twitter, both of them founded within the last 10 years.
The statistics are mind-boggling: Almost half of the American population has a Facebook account, and there are over 500 million Facebook users worldwide. Facebook allows its users to maintain or develop relationships as they wish. It offers a paradigm of two-way communication that traditional media such as newspapers or even websites have struggled to keep up with. If you find something exciting on the internet, you can share it on Facebook, and make it part of your friends’ lives as well as your own. In fact, sport is one of the few other mediums that connects people in a similarly passionate way. So what better way than Facebook to bring sports fans together?
First Social Media Games
This was the challenge facing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ahead of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, which took place in February last year. The IOC responded by developing a communica-tions strategy that utilised the opportunities offered
by the internet’s leading social networks as a fresh way of keeping fans in touch with events, and with one another, alongside the existing methods. The XXI Winter Olympiad was to be the first “social media Games”.
“Social media makes sense for all the IOC’s activities; more so than for nearly any other organisation that comes to mind,” says Mark Adams, the IOC’s Director of Communications.
“Think of it like this: fans of the Olympic Games in general are already a social network; they’ve globally, nationally and among friends shared precious experiences and emotions. The social network is already there and has existed around each edition of the Games – all we are trying to do is to use the new digital tools and ‘platforms’ to animate this community.”
What developed over the course of the Games was a two-way process between the event and its followers that can only take place online. “Social media is instant and intimate,” Adams adds. “It doesn’t replace other forms of communications, but is complementary to them. The conversation is taking place and we need to be a part of it. Taking Facebook as an example, we would be crazy not to want to be involved in a platform that has half a billion active users – that’s one in 12 people in the world!”
Alex Huot, then recently appointed as the IOC’s Head of Social Media, was part of the IOC’s efforts to engage with its worldwide audience in a new way. Characteristically, he set out his aims on a Facebook blog.“When I started managing social media for the IOC,” he said, “I immediately saw the connection between the concept of a ‘fan’ on Facebook and the long-standing fans of the Olympic Games. Just as the Olympic rings are universally recognised, so too is the concept of a ‘fan’ of Olympic sports.”
With one month to go before the Games began, the IOC launched its Facebook page, which enabled fans to keep up-to-date with activities and events at the Games, while sharing their stories about Vancouver 2010. By the time the Games ended on 28 February, the page had over one and a half million fans and had generated nearly 200 million impressions.
As well as providing behind-the-scenes updates from athletes, the Facebook page enabled fans to share their Olympic experiences through mediums such as the Olympic photo contest, which saw almost 4,000 photos submitted by fans, ranging from superb action imagery to more personal pictures like the family pet dog wearing the Vancouver red mittens.
Fans were also given the opportunity to win free tickets to see Olympic events, cheer for their favourite athletes or even “play” Olympic sports, while the Official Vancouver 2010 Video Game received over five million plays.
Flickr and YouTube accounts complemented the Facebook presence and enabled the sharing of photos and video of the Vancouver Games online. The IOC’s Best of Us challenge on YouTube invited fans to compete (safely) against athletes and video the results. Could they hold more tennis balls than Rafael Nadal? Could they hoola-hoop for more than 30 seconds to beat snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis? These two challenges, out of 10 available, have racked up over 750,000 views on YouTube, working wonders for both the profile of the Games and the fitness of those responding.
For the more sedentary among its fans, the IOC also produced an online mini-game, playable via Facebook, which allowed fans to compete virtually in a selection of fast-paced winter sports.
Meanwhile, photo site Flickr was also used to share pictures of the Games through Olympic imagery. More than 11,000 Olympic photos, taken by over 600 photographers, were shared with viewers around the world via the website. By the start of the inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in August 2010, these images had been viewed over 1 million times.
The Facebook site, in particular, allowed the IOC to reach out and engage with younger Olympic fans around the globe, who are increasingly difficult to reach through traditional media – almost 70% of the Facebook fans are under the age of 24.
The IOC also kept fans updated on the latest happenings at the Games and around the Olympic Movement through its Twitter account. Its followers include Olympic stars such as the multiple speed skating gold medallist Apolo Anton Ohno and British diver Tom Daley, who exchange “tweets” with the IOC, answering questions and sharing experiences such as their favourite moments competing at the Games.
Alongside the more traditional press releases, the IOC now tweets information and updates to the media and public from events such as its quarterly Executive Board meetings – as well as highlights from the most recent edition of Olympic Review!
Youth Olympic Games
Encouraged by the success of its digital strategy in Vancouver, the IOC then began the build-up towards the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. Here, for the first time, young athletes, many of whom will go on to represent their countries in future Olympic Games, were given the chance to communicate directly with their followers online. Provided with advice and guidelines in best practice for social media, they were encouraged to share their experiences fresh from competition, via Twitter or Facebook.
“It is important to note that young people are not only using Twitter but also Facebook, websites, and their own personal blogs,” explains Huot. “What they are sharing is also worth mentioning, as many of them are not only posting text but also photos and videos.”
Julian Lim, who led the social media team for the Singapore Youth Olympic Games Organising Committee said: “Social media presents a valuable channel for athletes to connect with their fans and those who are interested in their sports. It’s a tremendous opportunity that sporting legends such as Muhammad Ali and Pele did not have during their amazing time as professional athletes.”
“We were very heartened to see that athletes were interested in learning about social media applications. They attended workshops where they learnt about free, web-based applications that could help them with photo editing, micro-blogging, information resources, file-sharing, and even
where to stream music legally. With that, we hope we’ve done our part to create an even more social media-savvy generation of athletes.”
It was an approach that, as in Vancouver, resulted in some impressive figures. The IOC’s Youth Olympic Games Facebook page has been liked by more than 70,000 people worldwide, a number that continues to grow daily as the countdown quickens to the first Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck next January. It was on the YOG Facebook page that the competition was held to choose a mascot for Innsbruck. Fans were invited to pick their favourite from a final shortlist of three.
Engaging with Olympic fans
Were those responsible surprised by the huge popularity of the Winter Games in Vancouver and
the YOG on Facebook and other social media? “Not really,” Huot says. “We need to go where our fans are and engage them on a level playing field where they can have their say. We actually tailor a lot of the editorial content to what our fans want and like. By listening to what they have to say, we find ourselves closer to our audience.”
This closeness is not just about sport; it’s about geography, too. “One of the great things about social media is that you can geotarget – reach specific communities in their own language with materials that interest specific groups,” Adams explains.
“Not only that – but it can be done in a way that would be prohibitive using more traditional means, even the web. We’ve recently launched on a Chinese version of Twitter – ‘Weibo’ – and we already have close to 1,000,000 followers. We can give them Chinese material in Chinese, while of course bearing in mind the general messages we want to communicate to all our followers,” says Adams.
“Facebook has always been focused on building ways for people to connect with each other and share information with their friends,” says Facebook UK’s Stephen Haines.
“We think this is important because people are shaping how information moves through their connections. People are increasingly discovering information not just through links to web pages but also from the people and things they care about.”
This is a sentiment echoed by the IOC’s Mark Adams. “It’s important not to lose sight of why we are doing this. Simply building numbers may be gratifying – but we are building these communities for exactly the same reason that we carry out our other functions in the Communications department... ultimately we want to communicate Olympic values; social media is simply a new and effective channel to do this.”
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2012
London 2012 will be an Olympic Games whose buzz will be generated online as much as in the real world. “Facebook is an essential part of experiencing and discussing the Olympic Games, bringing the athletes and their real, daily experiences to the world in a way that TV and other one-way mediums cannot,” says Haines. Although the social media build-up to London 2012 is already well underway, by the time the Games begin, extra tools will no doubt be added to the mix.
When asked whether London will continue the IOC’s campaign, and whether it plans to extend its reach across social media, the IOC’s Mark Adams has a definitive, one-word answer: “Yes!”
All the channels at a glace:
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